The Royal Society Takes Another Step Away from Science

by | Apr 26, 2012

Back in October 2010, I wrote an article for Spiked,

It is no coincidence that, as it was preparing to moderate its statements on climate change, the Society has been seeking to intervene in the debate about population. In July this year, it announced that it would be ‘undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures’.

Climate change has served as the encompassing environmental narrative. It was used to connect the human and natural worlds, and to provide a basis for many political institutions that, without a climate crisis, would simply lack legitimacy. The forcefulness with which claims about climate change were presented and their abstract nature made climate-centric politics ever less plausible. However, if players in the climate debate are beginning to sense the exhaustion of the climate issue, they are able simply to slide into the population debate.

The perspectives of environmentalism do not begin with science, but with the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world. This outlook goes unchallenged because of a perception that environmentalism is a pragmatic solution to purely scientifically-defined problems, and a belief that it can be answered in purely scientific terms. This encourages a sense of passivity, a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’.

A longer version of the argument is on this blog, here.

Shortly after the Royal Society announced it was to revise its advice on climate change, it announced [PDF]:

The Royal Society is undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures over the next forty years and beyond. The aims of the study are to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study will be global but it will explicitly acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics and the impact of policy interventions. We aim to complete the project by early 2012.

The timing is no accident. The character of the public discussion of environmental issues is changing. While it is welcome that there has been a marginally more sober reflection on the climate, there is little to celebrate. The scientific academy has sensed that it in today’s world, it wields political power. As the call for evidencesuggests, the Royal Society has already decided that population is a problem, and the size of the population ought to be managed by political power, not by the individuals it consists of.

We invite feedback on the following questions.  [… ]

  1. What scientific evidence is available to show how fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation will affect or be affected by population levels and rates of change, at both regional and global levels, over the next forty years and beyond?
  2. How fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation are influenced by and influence environments, economies, societies and cultures?
  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different population modelling methodologies?
  4. What are the key interconnections among population change, environments, economies, societies and cultures? How do these relate to any of the examples listed in the second bullet point of the terms of reference above?
  5. What are the key linkages among population, technology and consumption.
  6. What are the best (or worst) examples of how policy has been effective in managing population changes?
  7. What other issues should our study addresses?

The implication of these question is the same idea that operated at the core of the RS’s climate perspective. The idea of our dependence on ecosystems is still the premise of its neomalthusianism. The climate story emphasised the damage that climate change would do to these systems, resulting in calamity. A weaker form of the same climate story serves as an adjunct to the population story. Neomalthusians can now acknowledge the uncertainty of the climate science, but make the claim that the degree to which climate change is certain is a function of population. The more people, the greater the possibility that climate change is a problem. Climate change has been the principal narrative which connected human society to the natural world, but now population has become the ‘master’ issue. It connects fears about biodiversity, climate change, resource-depletion, pollution, and so on. We can jump up and down with joy when climate science is shown to have been exaggerated by politicians, or is embarrassed by the excesses of a researcher. But it won’t have been the result of attempts to understand the phenomenon of environmentalism, and environmentalists will simply regroup under the population issue, as we predicted they would.

The Royal Society has finally published its report on population, ‘People and planet‘.

This project was a major study investigating the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet.

The final report People and the Planet was published on 26 April 2012.

Rapid and widespread changes in the world’s human population, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption present profound challenges to human health and wellbeing, and the natural environment.

The combination of these factors is likely to have far reaching and long-lasting consequences for our finite planet and will impact on future generations as well as our own. These impacts raise serious concerns and challenge us to consider the relationship between people and the planet. It is not surprising then, that debates about population have tended to inspire controversy.

This report is offered, not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet. It raises questions about how best to seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring – and how to avoid the most harmful impacts.

The aims of the study were to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study was global. It explicitly acknowledged regional variations in population dynamics, and the inequality that exists in consumption patterns around the world.

The report concludes with several key recommendations:

1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.
2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.
3. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues. Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.

So when did inequality, poverty, reproductive rights, and the issue of what levels of material wealth people should be entitled to become matters of ‘science’?

(It’s a rhetorical question).

As discussed previously — follow the links to the articles above — the Royal Society’s sideways step from climate alarmism to Malthusianism is also a step backwards. Before climate change became the dominant narrative of political environmentalism, the principle issues were ‘limits to growth’ and ‘the population bomb’. Those vehicles failed to give the environmentalists’ political project the profile it needed. Malthusianism was, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, too easily rebutted. And in the dark days of the cold war, we seemed to have bigger problems to face. The end of the cold war arrived, and the brief era of optimism ended with climate change. It filled the nuclear-winter-shaped hole. But now there is widespread acknowledgement that climate change has been over-stated, the institutions which have sought to attach themselves to the issue have had to find a new story. And the new story is an old story. The Royal Society’s report is not at all ashamed of its origins in the work of Malthus…

The relationship between population growth and economic development has long been debated. Malthus in the 18th century was interested in the economic effects of rapid population growth and the relationship with the capacity of the earth to sustain it. These concerns resurfaced in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that an era of unprecedented, rapid increase in the populations of the developing countries had started. Since Malthus, other authors have highlighted the potentially negative impact of continued population growth (eg Coale and Hoover 1958; Ehrlich 1968, 2008; Turner 2009) while others have argued that technological advance and institutional development could counter negative effects of rapid population growth on development (Kuznets 1967; Boserup 1981; Simon 1981). It is clear from this debate that economic development and the demographic transition are linked in complicated and reciprocal ways, and that different challenges and opportunities are presented at different stages of the transition.

In terms of the effect of population factors on economic growth the common view is that rapidly increasing populations have a negative effect on economic growth and employment, due to declines in natural resources and other forms of capital per head. The nature of the relationship between population growth and economic growth will depend on the rate of population growth; a slow population growth rate, of say 1% per annum might have an advantage over a negative growth rate, whilst higher growth rates, of say 2% or more, are unlikely to have a positive impact on economic growth. The rate of capital accumulation is also important; without major accumulation of capital per capita, no major economy has or is likely to make the low-to middle-income transition. Though not sufficient, capital accumulation for growth is absolutely essential to economic growth (Turner 2009).

It can be no coincidence then, that Paul Ehrlich was made a fellow of the Royal Society last week. The Royal Society has embraced Malthus, just as it has embraced the malthusian.

And in doing so, the Royal Society abandons its claim to be a scientific authority. It has embraced a particular ideology… a nasty, anti-human perspective on the world. It can no longer say Nullius in Verba (on the word of no one). It’s perspective is no longer fixed on the material world. The object of its ‘science’ is now the human world, and control over it.

And it took just minutes after the publication of the report for the environmental alarmists to seize the opportunity.

Earth faces a century of disasters, report warns
Economic and environmental catastrophes unavoidable unless rich countries cut consumption and global population stabilises

It’s John Vadal, in the Guardian, of course.

World population needs to be stabilised quickly and high consumption in rich countries rapidly reduced to avoid “a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills”, warns a major report from the Royal Society.

Contraception must be offered to all women who want it and consumption cut to reduce inequality, says the study published on Thursday, which was chaired by Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Sulston.

The assessment of humanity’s prospects in the next 100 years, which has taken 21 months to complete, argues strongly that to achieve long and healthy lives for all 9 billion people expected to be living in 2050, the twin issues of population and consumption must pushed to the top of political and economic agendas. Both issues have been largely ignored by politicians and played down by environment and development groups for 20 years, the report says.


The authors declined to put a figure on sustainable population, saying it depended on lifestyle choices and consumption. But they warned that without urgent action humanity would be in deep trouble. “The pressure on a finite planet will make us radically change human activity”, said Pretty.

“The planet has sufficient resources to sustain 9 billion, but we can only ensure a sustainable future for all if we address grossly unequal levels of consumption. Fairly redistributing the lion’s share of the earth’s resources consumed by the richest 10% would bring development so that infant mortality rates are reduced, many more people are educated and women are empowered to determine their family size – all of which will bring down birth rates”, said an Oxfam spokeswoman.

There are perfectly good arguments for equality, for access to contraception, and for many other things which offer the possibility — albeit contested — of improving the lives of humans. But not in this report. Not in Vidal’s articles in the Guardian. And not from Oxfam, either. None of these organisations and individuals can make an argument for anything progressive while they pretend that it is ‘science’ which is speaking, and not them. Science has nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of inequality, the rights of women, and the material entitlements of people. And only a fool could think that science could make such an argument. The plight of poor people, and people who live without the freedom to determine their own future are not the concern of people who hide their politics behind ‘science’. In their narrative, the Royal Society make instrumental use of the poor, to make a political argument for their own ends. Just as Malthus did.


  1. Donna Laframboise

    Bravo! This is awesome.

  2. geoffchambers

    Science has nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of inequality, the rights of women, and the material entitlements of people. And only a fool could think that science could make such an argument.

    Exactly. Reading the extracts you quote, punctured with those little brackets containing name and date, like a badge sewn on a prisoner’s uniform, is enough to make you weep for the fate of Western civillisation.
    The problem is not that these guys know nothing about demography, sociology, economics,etc. They know nothing about intellectual activity, period. Two centuries of Enlightment thought has passed them by. There’s not an ounce of genuine reflection gone into this. Do they really think that puncturing their paragraphs of well-meaning blather with “(Ehrlich, 1968)” transforms it into a reasoned argument? Do they not see that the problem with their reasoning is that proper human beings don’t act like that? We have ideas and we exchange them in the maelstrom of our infinitely complex and fascinating world. We don’t form a committee to hand out homilies to the planet from on high. Only nutters in Napoleonic hats do that.
    Actually, maybe we do, as a sign that we are totally irrelevant. This sounds like the last-gasp prophesy from some oracle dedicated to a god no-one believes in any more. (“Pass the entrails Alice, I think Im going to be extispic” ).
    I have one question for Sir John Sulston: “Do you really think that having a Nobel Prize entitles you to be such a boring boring boring little man?”

  3. geoffchambers

    My apologies to Sir John Sulston for my rudeness. I’ve just followed the link from the Vidal article to an article about Sir John which starts like this

    “You must meet Bob Horvitz,” Sir John Sulston told me, the first time we met. “He’s spent 30 years of his life studying the 22 cells of a worm’s vulva!” The truth, though, is that Sulston doesn’t think there is anything remotely silly about spending 30 years looking at a worm

    Now that’s interesting. Sir John and his colleague Bob have gone up in my estimation. (My particular thing is drawing muscular women in exotic minimalist costumes – when I’m not sorting out the world’s problems of course)

  4. Maurizio Morabito

    This is no step “backwards”. This is a step away from science.

    Pity the civilization whose “best brains” spend their time telling others what’s not possible. It’s like if every time one had a scratch or a run, a doctor would come around to say one’s going to die

  5. geoffchambers

    Leo Hickman is consulting his readers about the RS report at
    He quotes a French report by “French national agencies” which supports the Royal Society’s demand that we cut back on consumption. He doesn’t mention that they are agricultural agencies, defending the good old French way of food production: – inefficient agriculture protected by absurdly restrictive EU rules.

    The French report says, among other things: “food scientists will need to organise globally, as climate scientists have done” – meaning higher food prices to match the higher fuel prices.
    Science as an organised attack on the poor.

  6. AngusPangus

    People like John Sulston and John Vidal are always SO enthusiastic about reducing OTHER PEOPLE’s consumption and re-distributing OTHER PEOPLE’s wealth.

    If they lived very modestly and gave away most of what they earned themselves, they might deserve an audience. Until then, they can fuck off.

  7. Vinny Burgoo

    The Royal Society must have been heartened by this story in Nyasa Times yesterday:

    The funeral of a corrupt and autocratic president was marked by a massive increase in the sale of condoms and the resumption of British fertilizer subsidies: fewer births resulting from the exequial sex marathon and more food for those now living.

    The only thing the RS might not have liked is that Malawians bought their own condoms on their own initiative rather than being handed them from on high by their colonialist mastersthe international community.

  8. Shevva

    When did The Royal Society (They really don’t deserve the Royal part anymore) become a part of FoE, WWF and Greenpeace? more activist in ‘The Cause’ than scientific in their understanding.

  9. julie

    I’d be quite happy to reduce my (modest) consumption if I thought it would be universal. However, I know that it is only the poor and middle class who would be ‘reduced’ to poverty.
    Alarmists agonize over the future of ‘our’ grandchildren re AGW. Well, I have two and I do not intend encouraging them to become ‘global serfs’ for rich multinationals/internationals/non nationals.
    I am reminded increasingly of Conrad’s description of Kurtz (Heart of Darkness) as one who had ‘kicked himself free of the earth’. He came to a bad end as I recall.

  10. Jack Savage

    I had the accidental privilege of making the first comment on the Guardians comment thread. It was a one-liner along the lines that this was proof positive of the Royal Society’s descent into a political advocacy group and that it should be discouraged.

    It was of course moderated out of existence at once. The Guardian abandoned any vestiges of impartiality a long time ago. It has now, it would seem, abandoned fair debate!

    The comfort is that this smacks of desperation.

  11. Oliver K. Manuel

    The Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the United Nations have probably been actively involved in the events leading to Climategate since at least 1946.


    The following events suggest purposeful misinformation on the energy source that creates elements and sustains life and Earth’s constantly changing climate after Hiroshima was destroyed on 6 Aug 1945:

    1. Problem:
    When Hiroshima was consumed by “nuclear fires”, world leaders were apparently driven by fear and the instinct of survival to:

    _a.) Unite Nations, and
    _b.) Hide the source of energy that ignites “nuclear fire”.

    2. Evidence:
    1940: Fred Hoyle et al. all believe the Sun is mostly Iron*
    1945: Hiroshima vanished because E = mc^2: 6 Aug 1945
    1945: United Nations Charter is ratified: October 24, 1945
    1946: Solar interior changed: Iron (Fe) into Hydrogen (H)*
    1946: F. Hoyle, Monthly Notices Royal Astron Soc 106, 255*
    1946: F. Hoyle, Monthly Notices Royal Astron Soc 106, 343*
    1956: Publication “Earth’s natural nuclear fires” blocked
    1957: B2FH publish the bible on element synthesis in stars**
    1965: PD Jose, “Solar motion, sunspots” Astron J 70, 193***
    1967: The Bilderberg standard model of Sun is formulated****
    1975: Evidence of local element synthesis in Sun is ignored
    ____ “The case for local synthesis of the chemical elements”
    ____ Trans. Missouri Acadamy Sciences 9, 104-122 (1975)
    1977: The scientist that reports the pulsar Sun vanishes
    ____ Nature 270, 159-160 (1977)
    1983: SW evidence of iron (Fe)-rich solar interior reported
    ____ LPSC abstract 1232
    1983: Meteorite studies discredit superheavy element fission
    ____ LPSC abstracts 1221 and 1436
    1983: Solar wind analyses confirm 1940 Iron-Sun of Hoyle et al.
    ____ “Solar abundances of elements” Meteoritics 18, 209-222 (1983)
    1983: Nature predicts the demise of established solar dogmas
    ____ Nature 303, 286 (26 May 1983)
    1985: Seismic evidence of (Fe)-rich solar interior ignored
    ____ Sun’s iron-like core, Astron. Astrophys. 149, 65-72 (1985)
    1986: Challenger disaster delays Iron-Sun confirmation*****
    1989: Government tries to discredit cold fusion discovery
    1993: Possibility of nuclear reactor reported in Earth core
    1995: NASA hides Jupiter data that confirms Iron (Fe) Sun
    1998: CSPAN records belated release of Jupiter data******
    2001: Neutron repulsion solves the solar neutrino puzzle
    2001: 178 SNO scientists report solar neutrino oscillation
    2001: World Trade Center attack reunites nations: 9/11/01
    ____ World Trade Center History
    2005: Data from 1957 B2FH paper confirm Fe-Sun*******
    2008: Nature assigns credit for natural reactors to others
    ____ Nature online 15 May 2008
    2009: Climategate emails and documents show deception
    2012: Dr. Peter Gleick’s actions confirm AGU/NAS at work

    For more details:

  12. MarkB

    Is there a single scientist in the 20th century who was more wrong about more things than Paul Ehrlich? Apparently, your Royal Society is now a religious organization, granting sainthood rather than scientific honours.

  13. zt

    Let’s not confuse John Vidal with other more famous Vidals, e.g. Gore Vidal (i.e. the use of the term Vidal is ambiguous).

  14. robb rogers

    “…the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world.

    Are you suggesting that a premise that humankind is dependent upon the natural world is false? –that
    humankind can manage on our own without the natural world?

  15. Alex Cull

    Sir John Sulston was interviewed this morning on BBC’s Today programme. Most of this will disappear from iPlayer after a few days (they’re not archiving as much as they used to); however, I’ve knocked together a transcript of the entire thing:

    Sir John: “I mean, we’re told to compete for growth, that means to compete for shopping. It means we’re supposed to buy more clothes and throw the perfectly good ones away. And so on, and so on. If we priced the material in those clothes properly, then we would not renew them so often; we would make better use of our resources.”

    Maybe someone better versed than me in economics could comment?

  16. geoffchambers

    The Call for Evidence linked by Ben above defined the scope of the report as the interconnection of population change with economics, food security, conflict, health, human rights, natural resources, education – the whole of human activity in other words.
    If you look at Alex Cull’s transcript (many thanks Alex!) of the BBC report, this comes down to university professors telling us:

    we’ve got to, kind of, shift towards different thinking about consumption, different thinking about what a green economy might look like.

    As we enlarge our footprint on the Earth, we’re gradually eroding away at that Earth’s support system. So we’re not doing a good job of, if you like, gardening the planet.

    … going for green energy rather than constantly emitting carbon dioxide.

    Not surprising, given that the Call for Evidence aready identified CO2 as a pollutant. Either they, or the BBC, have left out all of human activity except the production of CO2.

    The other concern voiced was the gap between rich and poor. Ben reproduced an excellent Wikipaedia graph a while back demonstrating how the gap is narrowing – with Western economies growing at 1%, African countries at 4-5%, and China at 8-10%. It’s happening. The dream of egalitarians like Sir Paul Nurse and Sir John Sulston is coming true, but no-one’s told them.

  17. Mooloo

    Are you suggesting that a premise that humankind is dependent upon the natural world is false? –that
    humankind can manage on our own without the natural world?

    Yes, I would deny both these claims. At least in the sense that “natural” means as nature originally provided.

    Not a single food I eat resembles the natural original (ever seen a natural wheat plant?). I am dressed in fabrics that either have no natural antecedents (polyester, nylon, elastane) or are nothing like the original (try and find a wild cotton plant!). I drive a rather non-natural car. Actually the fuel is natural, but I doubt that that really counts. I amuse myself with the computer, television and stereo. I live in a house made of of some wood, true, but it could just as easily be steel and aluminium.

    Humans live in a world that they have utterly transformed from the original. It’s useless to deny this. It’s also useless to hope that we could somehow recreate the original form of life. That would mean living in caves and not even using horses (because really natural horses are about 150 cm high and not much use to anyone) let alone engines.

    That we’ve transformed the world is an unavoidable fact. Let us keep transforming it to make it better. Let’s not somehow deify “nature” as some mystic force that we must protect.

  18. Alex Cull

    The Guardian will have an interview with Sir John Sulston in their next science podcast, and they provide an excerpt here:

    There’s also an interview with Paul Ehrlich, which is described with masterly understatement as “not an uplifting read”. John Vidal asks him whether the things he predicted 40 years ago have come to pass, and he responds: “most of the things have gotten worse… The things that have been coming up have been much worse than we predicted, and that’s what’s got the scientific community scared.”

    John Vidal: Are you predicting more things to come up like this in the next 20 years?

    Paul Ehrlich: If we don’t change our ways rapidly, then we’re going to have much more, I think, in the next 20 years, certainly in the next 40 years. We’re already seeing semi-catastrophic effects of climate change, already.

    John Vidal: You’re talking about extremes of heat and cold…

    Paul Ehrlich: And tornadoes and floods and droughts…

    Tornadoes and floods and droughts, oh my! Here’s my favourite bit so far (off to work now, so haven’t had time to listen to all of it):

    John Vidal: You’re not in the business of predictions [?!] but if we go on at this pace, and in this direction, what’s going to happen?

    Paul Ehrlich: There’s going to be various forms of disaster. There may be slow-motion disasters, like more and more people getting hungry. They may be catastrophic because the more people you have, the greater the chances of some weird virus transferring from an animal population into the human population, we got vast die-offs there. We could have tremendous famines – again, it’s going to depend a lot on the climate and what we do or don’t do about it, and how prepared we are for it. But I certainly have a grim view of what’s likely to happen to my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.

  19. geoffchambers

    Yesterday Hickman put up an extract from an audio interview of Sir John Sulston in which the inteviewer John Vidal puts to Sir John some points made by Matt Ridley. Ridley replied immediately, pointing out that Vidal’s quotes are made up. Here, as an example of Sir John’s thought processes, is Sir John’s reply to what Matt Ridley never said: No, well, I mean, obviously Matt’s book, “A Rational Optimist” is very much along these lines. I mean, I think, I mean obviously there are points in there, but the thing is, optimism alone is not enough. I think he’s not a rational optimist personally, I think as he lays out his programme, he’s an irrational optimist, because he’s saying Ah! you know, people and the market will take care of everything. I don’t think that for a moment. I mean, after all, I mean, if you look at the history of the financial services of this country, which Matt was involved for a while, you can see very clearly that we need regulation in order to have an equable life. We know that this recession was engendered through financial services that were not adequately regulated. We take it for granted that we regulate important things. One of my favourite little anecdotes for example is air traffic control. It’s taken for granted by everybody, even Matt Ridley, that you control where aeroplanes fly. Isn’t that an enormous infringement of his human rights to fly his aeroplane wherever he wants? No, people accept because it’s pretty bad when aeroplanes collide, it’s sort of certain death. You know that’s a sort of an easy one to sort of agree on. What’s more difficult is to get agreement on the slow-burning long-term issues, the ones we’re talking about, where we can see problems down the line, but actually not in his lifetime or mine probably, you know, not the real bad crash. We’re looking at what will be for our children children’s children.

  20. Oliver K. Manuel

    From a review of events over the past sixty-six years (2012-1946 = 66 yr), it appears that the fear of “nuclear fires” consuming Hiroshima on 6 Aug 1945 compelled world leaders to immediately:

    a.) Unite Nations, and in the future to
    b.) Hide Information on energy that ignites “nuclear fire”

    The UK’s Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations and the Noble Prize Committee seem to have worked together to discredit reliable new information on:

    1. “Natural nuclear fires” on Earth in 1956
    2. “Nuclear fire” in the Sun in 1975, . . 2005
    3. “Slow nuclear fires” in cold fusion in 1989
    4. “Natural nuclear fires” in planetary cores

    The rest of the story, as I see it, is documented here:

    Since 1946, almost every major field of science has been compromised: Astronomy, astrophysics, atomic physics cosmology, climatology, nuclear, particle, planetary, and solar physics.

    I encourage you all to respond there so we can benefit from the diversity of opinions.

    Thanks to real scientists, skeptics like you,

    All is well today,
    Oliver K. Manuel
    Emeritus Professor of
    Nuclear & Space Science
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

  21. kim2ooo

    Good read!

  22. Alex Cull

    Here’s the full transcript of John Vidal interviewing Paul Ehrlich, everybody’s favourite arch-Malthusian and new Fellow of the RS:

    If you want to have a battery-chicken world, where everybody has minimum space, minimum food, just kept alive, then you might be able to support, in the long term, four or five billion people. But we’ve already got seven. So the issue is very clear. What we’ve got to do is humanely, as rapidly as possible, move to population shrinkage, and we can argue, while it’s gradually shrinking – over many decades, maybe a century – over what the best place to stop is, and we’ll have more information as time goes on, so we’ll be able to come up with better decisions.

    @Black Briton – excellent news. Game on, hopefully.

  23. Mooloo

    If you want to have a battery-chicken world, where everybody has minimum space, minimum food, just kept alive, then you might be able to support, in the long term, four or five billion people. But we’ve already got seven.

    Battery chickens aren’t kept in small spaces because of a general lack of space. They are kept in small spaces for the convenience of the farmer.

    The densest portions of the world include places Monaco that are perfectly lovely. It is possible for humans to live with very small ground area provided the money is available to build up. So we get places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which are ridiculously crowded – but where most of the poor live better than in rural Asia. Basic amenities trump space every time.

    Of all the stupid reasons to limit human population, lack of space has to be pretty much the stupidest. I have to ask: is Ehrlich the stupidest clever person on the planet?

  24. Mooloo

    Paul Ehrlich: The big issue, which the scientists looking at this have all been concerned about, is – we’re going to go over the top. We’re going to continue to grow for a while, until a disaster hits, and the issue is: can we actually go over the top and begin shrinking without a disaster.

    John Vidal: When you say “disaster”, what do you mean?

    Paul Ehrlich: A world-wide plague that kills off three or four billion people. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan, which would do the same. Something like that, we want to avoid.

    How would reducing population prevent India and Pakistan from going to nuclear war?

    How would reducing population prevent the emergence of some killer virus?

    The man is deranged in his desire to link any possible disaster with Malthusian problems, no matter how unrelated.

  25. geoffchambers

    Mooloo asks: “is Ehrlich the stupidest clever person on the planet?”

    This is a title awarded by popular acclaim. You get elected to it, like being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. The only difference between Ehrlich and the guy in Oxford Street with his trousers held up with string and an “End-is-Nigh” placard is the popular support for the one and the derision that greets the other.
    I was one of those worried adolescents in the 70s who spent too much time reading the likes of Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, instead of listening to the Rolling Stones. So, apparently, were the Fellows of the Royal Society. Some of us grow up and take a look at the world around us. Others become scientists, win Nobel prizes, and remain eternally impervious to empirical evidence.

    Many thanks to Alex for the transcript. I’ll transcribe Vidal’s interview with Sir John Sulston, which is still advertised as going up on the Guardian’s site tomorrow, despite the fact that Vidal apparently lied to Sulston about Ridley’s comments on Sulston’s report, making nonsense of Sulston’s replies.

  26. George Carty

    Mooloo: “How would reducing population prevent India and Pakistan from going to nuclear war?”

    I wonder how many neo-Malthusians are also white supremacists who want to return the global population distribution circa 1900, when white people were an anomalously large proportion of the world’s population (due to medical advances that had not yet spread to the non-white countries)?

    The Nuclear Green Revolution: The Club of Rome Faces the Yellow Peril

  27. geoffchambers

    George Carty
    “I wonder how many neo-Malthusians are also white suprematists…”

    None of them. Look at the names on the working group on p5 or the RS report, and you’ll see that they’ve done everything possible to make the authorship inclusive, with scientists from every continent.
    The population part is probably reliable. Many scientists must envy demographers their ability to tell the future. There’s no mystery about this. Having babies is one of the few things you can be pretty sure the human race will do, and good statistical data is available for 100+ countries. This enables demographers to see into the future a few decades with a certain success. No other social scientists can do this, and I expect the lamentable failure of climate scientists is what has persuaded the Royal Society to turn their attention to the only corner of social science which politicians might find useful.
    There’s a strong egalitarian streak to the current Royal Society (the current and the last presidents both describe their politics as Old Labour). Nothing wrong with that, but when the government wakes up to the fact that the RS is acting as a taxpayer-financed Think Tank to Ed Miliband and Caroline Lucas, the RS may find itself in trouble.

  28. Vinny Burgoo

    It’s raining again so I’ve been reading some old articles by George Monbiot (it’s either that or get drunk), including one from New Year’s Eve 2002 in which he argued that, because population growth, increasing consumerism and the ‘finity’ of natural resources threatened the survival of humanity, people should stop buying knickers at Brent Cross shopping centre. He supported this argument with facts and predictions, most of which were clearly pants.

    For example, he said that ‘[w]ithin five or ten years, the global consumption of oil is likely to outstrip supply’: a clear impossibility. Perhaps he meant that demand would outstrip supply but, if so, that would hardly be news. Demand has regularly outstripped supply since the days when oil was made out of whales, if not earlier. Or perhaps he was talking about peak oil. Did that arrive between 2007 and 2012? Er, no.

    He also said that ‘phosphate reserves are likely to be exhausted within 80 years’. Er, no. He probably got that by doing an inappropriate sum using contemporary FAO data. (The recent RS report got things similarly, if less specifically, wrong. See Tim Worstall’s article in the Telegraph for a link to estimates of current phosphorus usage, reserves and resources; google with ‘Van Kauwenbergh’ for other recent estimates.)

    But the 2002 article was written before Monbiot had discovered footnotes and I have been unable to source two of his factoids.

    1: If we take into account such factors as pollution and the depletion of natural capital, we see that the quality of life peaked in the United Kingdom in 1974 and in the United States in 1968, and has been falling ever since. We are going backwards.

    Such certainty and (undefined) precision! Does anyone know where he got 1968 and 1974 from? The source was probably well-known at the time, else he would surely have explained his assertions.

    2: The laws of thermodynamics impose inherent limits upon biological production.

    Something to do with insolation?

    (I miss the old Moonbat. He was great entertainment. The current Monbiot incarnation says he’s an ‘unreconstructed idealist’, but he’s not. He has become increasingly thoughtful and pragmatic over the last decade. He’s still wrong about some things, but in a way that commands increasing smidgens of respect, and sometimes he’s even right. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see him as a figure of fun. Ho hum. Where are the guaranteed duffers of yesteryear? There’s still Al Gore, I suppose …)

  29. geoffchambers

    Some commenters have interpreted the new emphasis on population and consumption as a realisation on the part of the catastrophists that they’ve lost the argument on climate, and are therefore changing tack.
    Not so, as can be seen in the audio presentation by Sir John Sulston, author of the RS report at
    After some introductory words, emphasising the international nature of the report, Sir John says:

    But why have we been doing all this? It’s because we are reaching a very critical time in the development of humanity on the earth. It’s a time which has been presaged repeatedly over the years with people saying: what will happen when we run out of space? Well, the strong evidence now is that we are running out of space, in the sense that we are now, collectively, affecting the world’s climate, the planet as a whole, the well-being of the planet, and therefore of ourselves. And this is due to the still-growing human population – not growing quite as fast as it was some years ago but still growing – and certainly our increasing consumption. And the combination of these two is leading to the effects that we see around us.

    Climate is still central to the programme. The Royal Society has simply piled unsubstantiated worries about population and “well-being” on to the unsubstantiated worries about CO2 and global warming. It cant be said often enough, that Sir John’s “science” is logically dependent on Leo HIckman wetting himself every week in the environment pages of the Guardian. “Well-being” is the new polar bear, and it’s all about what’s going on in the heads of Hickman and Sir John Sulston.

  30. geoffchambers

    John Vidal’s audio interview with Sir John Sulston is now available at
    (starting 32 minutes in). I’m transcribing it for Alex Cull’s mytranscriptbox site.

    Sir John starts his “quick run-down of the report” like this:

    What we conclude is that people have been leaving population off the agenda, but in particular, what’s been happening is that population and consumption have been treated separately. And let me immediately define consumption in these terms: we can consume economically so that, for example, we can play games or write software or something that takes little or no resource, or we can consume materially, for example digging up coal and burning it, driving our cars and so on, and it’s the second sort of consumption that’s of concern here. And what’s been ignored for the last twenty years is that this total material consumption is a product eventually of the number of people and the amount that they each consume. I mean, it’s not exactly a product because there are variations depending on the number of people, there can be something on the other side of the equation, but roughly it’s the two multiplied together. And so we have to consider both, and we must not any more get into the situation where one bunch of people in the world are saying “It’s all your fault because you’re having too many babies” and the other side is saying “It’s all your fault because you’re emitting too much carbon dioxide.”

    The fairest thing we can say is that Sir John is deeply confused.
    John Vidal’s questions seem designed to prove George Carty right about white suprematists. His voice is strikingly similar to Prince Charles’s. Could it come from spending his life travelling the world tallking to natives?

  31. Chris T

    Some commenters have interpreted the new emphasis on population and consumption as a realisation on the part of the catastrophists that they’ve lost the argument on climate, and are therefore changing tack.
    Not so, as can be seen in the audio presentation by Sir John Sulston,

    They’re not abandoning it, so much as a de-emphasizing it. Whereas before, climate would take center stage, it is now one of several ills blamed on supposed human overpopulation. Many have (not nearly all) indeed realized the political conversation on climate is lost and are falling back on their real primary motivation. The realization itself is mostly emotional rather than rational and is resulting in poorly thought out and uncoordinated messages (the green movement seems to increasingly be in a state of intellectual chaos right now).

    As an aside, what exactly do overpopulation prophets expect us to do? Even if the entire world adopted a one child policy, the population would increase for some time out of sheer demographic inertia.

  32. Alex Cull

    Just to say the transcript of the Guardian interview with Sir John Sulston is now available, and many thanks to Geoff for this:

    Here’s how the conversation ends:

    Sir John Sulston: And you know what, I mean, one of the reasons I think for the disquiet of such people, is that they don’t really believe in the science, which is quite curious, because, you know, Matt [Ridley] obviously is scientifically educated. They don’t really understand or believe in, as I do – when I say “believe” that sounds like a faith, I don’t mean that, what I mean is that I know now that because our observations are getting so extensive all over the earth and the atmosphere, and because we’re building such really good elaborate models, it actually works, we actually could predict, it turned out, twenty years ago, what was going to happen to the earth’s temperature, and it’s happening. You know, the models were right.

    He was also on BBC Radio 4 Any Questions at the weekend (h/t Alice Bell on one of the Guardian threads):

    An excerpt:

    Anne McElvoy: I’m just a bit worried about the slightly dismal, Malthusian tone to some of this debate, that wants to reduce people to just emissions, purveyors of climate change. I would say, John, as much as it is important how many of us there are, it is extremely important what we do while we are here.

    Jonathan Dimbleby: Quick response to that, John.

    Sir John Sulston: Yes, I absolutely agree that the whole purpose of my remarks is not to be dismal, not to be Marxist and certainly not to be Malthusian, but for everybody on the planet to flourish and not just to survive.

    Anne McElvoy: And pay a lot of tax.

  33. Lewis Deane

    “it’s democracy against bureaucracy” Why is it that, the right has my voice? UKIP to me is akin to the BNP. Like American talk radio – so stupid. How do we come to a world where the only sensible words are those of the ‘right’? It’s disgusting!

  34. Ben Pile

    Lewis – How do we come to a world where the only sensible words are those of the ‘right’?

    It’s easier if you abandon the old geometry of left and right.

    Another clue is in Hanan’s abilities. Clearly he is a man who takes his moral, political and historical ideas seriously, contra the predominant mode of voices on the left, who seem to eschew philosophical coherence, historical insight and a commitment to debate in favour of simple moral categories, delivered in high pitched tones. I can’t think of any person of that calibre on the mainstream ‘left’. There simply is no ‘left’ left. It’s exited the library, to hang out at occupy protests, its brains vacant. But there aren’t many like Hanan on the ‘right’, either.

    You can agree with Hanan about the centralisation of power in supranational organisations while disagreeing with him about economics. The mainstream left might well object. But then, so would much of the right, if it is represented by Hanan’s own party.

  35. George Carty

    What do you think UKIP and the BNP have in common Lewis? The main commonality I see is Islamophobia…

  36. Chris

    “Science has nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of inequality, the rights of women, and the material entitlements of people. And only a fool could think that science could make such an argument.”

    Maybe not hard sciences but these are topics that are highly discussed and written about in social science literature. I suppose we could ignore social sciences, but we would not get far without economics, history, or law among other things. I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that these sciences were pretty important tools for understanding human beings, seeing as how we are social animals.

  37. Ben Pile

    Chris: – …not hard sciences but these are topics that are highly discussed and written about in social science literature

    The post is pretty obviously talking about the material sciences. And only someone who took no care to read the post properly, or any of the blog at all, could blunder into the point you have made here.

  38. geoffchambers

    The Guardian is back on the population bandwagon again, with its theatre critic leading the charge
    Ian Jack has been to see Ten Billion, a one man show at the Royal Court written by and starring Stephen Emmott.

    He’s head of computational science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and professor of computational science at Oxford, and what he wants to tell us about is the future of life, particularly human life, on Earth. And for the next 75 minutes that’s what he does … as visuals appear on screens to illustrate what soon becomes a tide of frightening facts and predictions. Taken singly, few of these facts would be new to even the most casual Monbiot reader or the least faithful friend of the Earth, but their accumulation and the connections between them are terrifying.

    This is interesting, because it demonstrates how our intellectual élite think. They gather facts from the likes of George Monbiot, and link them together, then shit themselves.

    … the only answer is behavioural change. We need to have far fewer children and consume less. How much less? A lot less; two sheets of toilet paper rather than three … that kind of sacrifice won’t really do it.

    Population growth hasn’t replaced global warming as the fad of the moment. It’s been added on, in order to customise it for this year’s dinner party conversations. The problem is not the people themselves, (that would be so old-hat, so Malthusian) but rather that “food production already accounts for 30% of greenhouse gases”.
    Two things about the article disturbed me. The first is the quality of the comments. On a normal climate change thread, sceptics pick up 4 or 5 times more recommendations than warmists. Not so when the subject is population, where the recommends go to finger-licking references to Mayan prophesies and the advantages of nuclear war.
    The second is illustrated in two of Ian Jacks off hand comments (apologies for the punctuation)

    Go to a climate change conference these days, he says, and as well as all the traditional attendees there will usually be a small detachment of the forward-looking military.
    Recently [Emmott] asked one of his younger academic colleagues what he thought could be done. “Teach my son how to use a gun,” said the colleague.

    There are small signs that the Greens are getting frustrated, and frustrated people can turn nasty, at least in their fantasy life.

  39. Alex Cull

    It’s interesting to read some of the reviews for Ten Billion. Apparently, the show is a sellout, although at around 90 seats, the Royal Court Theatre is rather on the small side (for comparison, the London Coliseum has over 2,000 seats.)

    Some critics think it’s good, some question whether it’s effective as theatre, none (that I’ve read so far) have questioned whether any or all of it is actually true or accurate. As far as they are concerned, this is a real scientist standing in front of them, delivering the facts; it would be bad manners, at the very least, to start quibbling over any of it.

    Andrzej Lukowski, for instance, writes in Time Out:

    Emmott lacerates us with terrible predictions, backed up by painful facts: that the global population is spiralling out of control, and will hit 10 billion by the end of the century; that the planet cannot possibly sustain this many people; that Bangladesh will be drowned by the sea in a century; that 10 trillion litres of water is required annually to sustain the UK’s burger industry; that it seems unlikely anybody will act to stop this.

    And later:

    There is no ‘we might be screwed’ option – it is made plain that the world that we grew up in will be gone in few generations and the sooner we accept it, the better we’re likely to weather it.

    Staging ‘Ten Billion’ to liberal audiences in a 90-seat theatre is unlikely to help this realisation spread across the globe, but it’s exemplary programming for a major arts institution – and if it leads to Emmott being offered a wider platform elsewhere, then bravo.

    But this message, in one form or another, has already been back and forth across the globe countless times over the last half century. Surely the reason this particular recital of the Neo-Malthusian litany is successful is precisely because it is in front of a select audience in a tiny venue. As soon as the message strays outside its natural habitat, people (except for bureaucrats and activists) tend to ignore it, laugh at it or start to ask inconvenient and awkward questions. Ten trillion litres of water? Really? What are you basing that on, exactly? Etc.

    Which is clearly the wrong frame of mind, the correct attitude being reverence – mixed with a deep existential dread.

  40. Alex Cull

    More reviews of Ten Billion…

    (Apologies, by the way, for the runaway italics in the previous comment. Usually it’s the blockquotes that I mess up, this time it was the italics.)

    Theo Bosanquet writes cheerfully in Whats On Stage:

    It takes 3,000 litres of water to produce a single Big Mac; animal species are currently going extinct at a rate 1,000 times their natural level; the temperature of Greenland has risen three degrees since 1950; a Google search uses as much energy as boiling a kettle.

    … there is a sharp irony here, that Emmott acknowledges, in that it was largely the advancements made possible by science that got us into this crisis in the first place. But whether those same advancements can now undo the damage seems doubtful. So what’s the answer? In the words of Larkin: Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf / Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.

    Fiona Mountford, writing in the Evening Standard:–review-7959114.html

    The potential solutions Emmott half-heartedly offers near the end of the 65 minutes are mere drops in the ocean, which itself will soon be covering Bangladesh. In 88 years’ time this piece will require a sequel, 28 Billion, which will be the world’s population in 2100 if we carry on at our current reproductive rate.

    28 billion in 2100?

    I don’t think demographer Dr. Joseph Chamie (former director of the United Nations Population Division) would agree with that figure. Here’s an article worth reading:

    Blogger Tim Worstall also makes an eloquent counter argument:

    That there are real physical limits does not mean that we’re going to get anywhere close to them. Which is where our computer scientist needs to have a little look at economics.

    The first is that the great expansion of the population is over. Those who are going to have the grandchildren which lead to the peak population of 10 billion or so already exist. And it’s not really the increase in children that’s going to lead to that 10 billion anyway: it’s the failure of people to die before old age that is. What’s left of this last surge of population, from today’s 7 billion to that 10 billion or so peak is much more about the demographic transition than it is out of control birth rates.

    That rural peasantry is stopping dying at 40 and living to 60, 70. That’s the real underlying story of the blow out.

    Away from the theatre spotlights, the famous “elephant in the room” is beginning to look strangely mouse-like.

  41. geoffchambers

    The Observer’s Science editor Robin McKie has a review of Ten Billion today. He plagiarises Ian Jack’s review in the Guardian, repeating the stuff about military men in the audience and of course quotes Emmott’s famous line “we’re fucked”, a line which McKie had already quoted in an interview with Emmott last month.
    Every review I’ve seen repeats the “we’re fucked” mantra. Could it be that our ruling class is destroying our civilisation because of their unacknowledged passive homosexual fantasies? Do Oxford professors and London science correspondents secretly dream of being buggered by strong men in uniform? Can’t they get over it and leave us to emit our invisible trace gasses in peace?
    Sod the lot of them.

    McKie has some good one liners though.When you are trying to outline the impact of swelling populations, rising middle-class aspirations, increases in carbon dioxide outputs and melting icecaps, the issues of character and narrative can get confused. Ten Billion succeeded by simply avoiding them. There is no action.
    Thought so. It’s not real. It’s a confusion of rising middle class aspirations and melting ice caps. Ten Billion succeeds by avoiding the issues. There is no action. It’s a wankfest for Guardian readers.

  42. geoffchambers

    There’s more. Alex takes heart from the fact that there are only 90 seats in the theatre. But McKie reports that Emmott “has been besieged with offers from TV companies and documentary makers who want to put his work on screen. We have not seen the last of Ten Billion, it would seem”.

    McKie thinks the show works because: “there are no Paxmans to quibble over details and no climate gainsayers to make arcane or inaccurate objections. And that is the real lesson of Ten Billion. Without the clamorous voices of climate change deniers who constantly question the minutiae of scientists’ research or cherry-pick data, Emmott has shown that it is possible to make a straightforward, telling demonstration of the dreadful problems we face. We need a lot more sober, pithy work like this.”

    Think about it. This is the science correspondent of a major newspaper telling us that, in order to demonstrate the dreadful problems we face, all opposition must be silenced. Only a monologue by the voice of authority will do.
    And this ten billion tons of bullshit will soon be on our tv screens.



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